About halfway through the premiere episode of American Horror Story: Hotel, I messaged another writer on this site and said, “There is, like, literally no plot.” That’s not entirely inaccurate. By the time the first episode wraps, a semblance of a narrative has started to come together, but the premiere is largely a mishmash of manic, disjointed scenes — a few involving the creepy children and mattresses we saw in the teasers — that don’t entirely make sense on their own. And yet, somehow it works. American Horror Story: Hotel is a mess, but it’s a beautiful mess. The fifth installment of Ryan Murphy’s anthology series has a surreal, David Lynch feel to it, with an obligatory Kubrick influence, of course. The latter is made clear immediately with a ham-fisted, cold-open homage to The Shining‘s hallway-scenes (because Ryan Murphy doesn’t copy, he “pays homage”).
American Horror Story: Hotel is also beautifully shot, with the gorgeous, Art Deco backdrop of the fictional Hotel Cortez providing the perfect eerie setting for what might end up being the creepiest season thus far. Last year’s Freak Show had the briefly terrifying Twisty the Clown, but, based on the premiere episode, Hotel contains an element of genuine dread not matched since season one’s Murder House. It looks like it’s finally putting the “horror” back in American Horror Story. (Let’s just say that the drillbit dildo’ed Addiction Demon is not screwing around when he’s screwing around.)
The season looks like it will focus primarily on the character of John Lowe (Wes Bentley), a detective investigating a bizarre series of grisly murders that presumably invoke the Ten Commandments (which can be found hidden in this season’s opening credits). During the scene of the first murder, involving a dead woman who was having an affair with a man who was not her husband (who’s left alive but horribly mutilated), Lowe determines that the act had been committed not by a scorned spouse, but by someone with another motivation. When a call from the killer leads him to the Hotel Cortez — specifically the mysterious Room 64 — Lowe soon discovers that the killer, the hotel, and his family are all somehow intertwined, hopefully setting up a nice mystery that will play out over the course of the season.
It’s not until nearly halfway through the premiere that viewers finally meet Lady Gaga’s much-hyped character, the Countess Elizabeth, in a (previously hinted at) sleek and sexy scene that ends in an orgy/murder. Despite having not done much acting work in the past (unless you count perpetually playing the character of “Lady Gaga”), it’s easy to see why Lady Gaga made the perfect muse for Ryan Murphy. She’s effortlessly chic and foreboding at the same time, and it’s clear her raw energy is fueling Murphy’s creativity. Another standout is Sarah Paulson, who — in Jessica Lange’s absence — has been liberated from her damsel-in-distress duties this season to play a scenery-chewing, presumably evil character. Her “Hypodermic Sally” seems to get off on helping junkies overdose in the most horrifying manner possible, enlisting the help of the previously mentioned Addiction Demon.
As in past seasons, it’s insinuated that the dead do not stay dead, as an eventual flashback from 20 years prior depicts the deaths of two main characters. Unlike the deceased of Murder House, however, the dead don’t appear to be chained to the hotel in any way, so it’s unclear if they become ghosts or something else. What’s definitely clear is that Hotel is in some way connected to Murder House, as realtor Marcy (Christine Estabrook) from the first season makes an appearance to show the hotel around to a man who’s ostensibly the new owner (Cheyenne Jackson) and his son. (The motivation to sell unclear. Then again, most of the character motivations at this point are still pretty much unclear.)
Whether American Story: Hotel can keep the momentum going from the premiere remains to be seen. Freak Show likewise had a stellar first episode (albeit not quite to this caliber) and burned out after about four episodes. But the fact that Ryan Murphy is running with all cylinders firing right out of the gate and doesn’t appear to be all that concerned with making too much cohesive sense — at the moment — bodes well. If Murphy can keep building on the groundwork he’s laid out and not get too distracted with introducing too many new characters and plots, this season might just turn out to be American Horror Story‘s best yet.